The individual has been voted off this island, Earth. In place of the individual is now the group to which you are assigned based on politics, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, class, or whatever other way we can possibly divide ourselves into a tribe armed with Internet war paint. Twenty-four-hour mass media has led to an inculcation of groupthink, so the difficulty is merely finding your group and then telling everyone about it so that you can have the pre-assigned political argument. With our technology we have turned outward, looking out into a world that is suddenly at our fingertips and searching for truth, community, and significance through that technology. But it is a fruitless search. All we find is the faceless mob and pre-fabricated answers to questions that solve nothing. We have become alienated from our selves.
Our current age was prophesied—not necessarily by any Biblical figure, but by several writers and philosophers working in the aftermath of World War II, where technology such as radio and film had enabled a new form of propaganda. In these writers we can find some very startling truths about our own condition now. Imagine the shock and horror had these writers been brought back to life in this day and age?
Their day was the beginning of what became known as Mass Society. Technology had advanced to a point where we could all be pulled together into the glow of a television screen or the baritone voice of a radio broadcaster. We stared at machines rather than people. Today we stare at computers. The idea that such mass dissemination of information would bring us together and make the world a better place actually led to the feelings of alienation, incompleteness, and loss rather than the futuristic panacea envisioned by past generations. These writers were trying to come to terms with a Nietzschean existence in which “God is dead,” and man had anointed himself the god of reason. That being said, it would do us well to look at some of the things these writers had to say.
Man Against Mass Society by Gabriel Marcel
A Christian existentialist and critic of Jean-Paul Sarte, French philosopher Gabriel Marcel’s book, Man Against Mass Society should be required reading for anyone trying understand how the individual is lost in modern society. Marcel feared the loss of the individual to the throes of mass media, mass society, and propaganda and warned that in a purely materialistic world there could not exist the free individual: “In a society ruled by materialistic principles, freedom is transmuted into its opposite, or becomes merely the most treacherous and deceptive of empty slogans.”
He notes that propaganda becomes all the more insidious when not made within the state but by the state. In today’s corporate- and government-run mass media, the individual is subject to the whims and plots of more powerful interests. Truth, in any external sense of the word, becomes nearly impossible. Everything is tainted with politics and consumerism, i.e. deception. Part of the alienation of modern life is that we are constantly being sold something—whether political or commercial—and deep down we know it.
However, all of this is born of a deeper disquiet of being, something that has made us susceptible to propaganda and degradation: “It can never be too strongly emphasized that the crisis which Western man is undergoing today is a metaphysical one; there is probably no more dangerous illusion that that of imagining that some readjustment of social or institutional conditions could suffice of itself to appease a contemporary sense of disquiet which rises, in fact, from the very depths of man’s being.”
He also had the somewhat funny insight that in the near future the degradation of humanity would be such that pets would come to be interchangeable with children, based on cost analysis rather than love. “Before he decides to start a baby ‘on the way’, he will make careful calculations, just as if he were buying a motorcycle: he will try to estimate the annual expense as exactly as possible: foreseeing illnesses and doctors’ bills in one case: wear and tear and garage expenses in the other. Fairly frequently, instead of a baby, he will decide, by way of economy, on a little dog. It costs less; and if the bills at the veterinary surgeon’s grow too big, it can always be put painlessly out of the way.” Considering Europe’s population crisis, this does seem prophetic.
The Rebel by Albert Camus
Ever wonder why the world never seems to change enough for those activist revolutionaries? How the utopia they envision is never met but always just over the next horizon? Albert Camus offers an answer. The Rebel is revolting not just against the state of circumstances in which we exist but is rebelling against existence itself. The Rebel rejects not only that there is inequality but that people themselves are unequal. In essence, their rebellion will never be over because they are rejecting things that cannot be changed: “Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.”
It is not that they favor one choice over another; the Rebel rejects and fights against the fact that there is a choice at all. Much of this, Camus asserts, is a metaphysical rebellion against God and original sin. He finds that rebellion is inextricably bound with the idea of a personal God (though Camus was an atheist). Has it ever seemed to you that those activists protesting in modern times appear to be protesting against more than just their cause du jour? For Camus, they are protesting existence in a chaotic, unjust world believing that they are the minds who can right God’s unjustifiable wrongs.
Christianity had, up to now, offered the idea that God himself in the form of Jesus Christ had voluntarily submitted himself to grave injustice, torture and death and thus had endured the harshest of punishments that we would have to endure in the course of our lives on this planet. “But from the moment when Christianity, emerging from its period of triumph, found itself submitted to the critical eye of reason — to the point where the divinity of Christ was denied — suffering once more became the lot of man.” Camus’ philosophy is one of acceptance of an absurd but his insights into the basis of metaphysical rebellion help us understand why it is so absurd in the first place.
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel Boorstin
Following the metaphysical arguments of Camus and a more grounded critique of mass society, we find Daniel Boorstin’s practical guide to America’s pseudo-culture of manufactured life. Released in 1961, Boorstin’s work tackles everything from politics to travel to show that we no longer desire reality as it actually exists but rather a form of manufactured reality delivered to us by politicians, media, and corporations. He addresses propaganda, similar to Marcel, but offers a differing view.
Boorstin’s pseudo-events are manufactured events “planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced.” Its difficult to watch any political reporting these days without seeing this pseudo-event at work. Our yearly State of The Union Address is just such an event; an unnecessary display of royal adoration that renders a president more monarch than public servant and one in which you know ahead of time what you’re going to hear: The State of our Union is strong! (Far be it from me to hope that some future president will have the honesty to come out and say we’re screwed.)
What is fascinating about Boorstin’s analysis is how he distinguishes between propaganda—because we’re all too smart to fall for that—and pseudo-events: “Pseudo-events thrive on our honest desire to be informed, to have ‘all the facts,’ and even to have more facts than there really are… Pseudo-events appeal to our duty to be educated, propaganda appeals to our desire to be aroused. While propaganda substitutes opinion for facts, pseudo-events are synthetic facts which move people indirectly, by providing the ‘factual’ basis on which they are supposed to make up their minds.”
In today’s media, the pseudo-event reigns supreme. Everything is scripted and and pre-chewed for easy digestion. When a truly spontaneous event occurs it generally elicits more anger at our being shocked into reality than actual joy that something finally didn’t go according to the media’s plan.
The True Believer by Eric Hoffer
“The decent, average people who do the nation’s work in cities and on the land are worked upon and shaped by the minorities at both ends—the best and the worst. The superior individual, whether in politics, literature, science, commerce or industry, plays a large role in shaping a nation, but so do individuals at the other extreme—the failures, misfits, outcasts, criminals, and all those who have lost their footing, or never had one, in the ranks of respectable humanity,” writes Eric Hoffer in The True Believer.
Hoffer was the working-class philosopher—a longshoreman who wrote his works in the evenings and was able to see the destruction of mass movements on the individual who was outside the realms of academia or political power. Like most of our previous authors, Hoffer was working with the Nazi and Communist movements in mind, but these observations are not limited solely to those movements. He was trying to find the base causes of mass movements, the base desires that cause people to give themselves over to belief rather than skepticism.
In doing so, much like Camus, Hoffer sheds light on the activist movements, the pseudo-causes that plague our current society. “They who clamor the loudest for freedom are often the ones least likely to be happy in a free society. The frustrated, oppressed by their shortcomings, blame their failure on existing restraints. Actually their innermost desire is for an end to the ‘free for all.’ They want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected to in a free society.”
To be sure, Hoffer does not describe all mass movements as inherently evil, but feels that even those that are worthy are subject to temptation; to continuing in the face of victory for the sole reason of obtaining more power and influence. One is reminded of particular movements when, once their goals are attained, go on to find new goals sometimes in opposition to their original ones. For instance, Progressivism as a movement itself tends to resemble more of a circle than a straight line to “progress,” consuming its own ideals and actors in its indelible march toward… whatever it is they constantly redefine as “progress.”
Truth Through Introspection
Of course, these are all very short treatments on books that demand introspection and deep reading. People of each political persuasion could mold their own ideas and current events onto these pages. A liberal reader might see the Trump phenomenon at work; the conservative may see the global warming movement. One may pick and choose, but the point is to challenge yourself as an individual to not be fooled by your pre-existing prejudices and inclinations, much less succumb to viewing the issues through a warped media lens.
To maintain one’s individuality in the face of Mass Society is to search for truth and meaning through introspection, not through outward movements. While technology has given the ability to communicate across vast swaths of humanity and cultures, it has not given us over to personal truth, and, in fact, has caused that personal goal to be further away. With so many versions of the truth “out there,” it is easy to just give oneself over to it, sacrifice our individuality for that idea and movement in the belief that this will make one feel whole and give us a rudder in a stormy seas.
But this is a false hope. The world is too fractured to allow oneself true belief in any one of its movements and to thus hinge our identity on that movement. We must look to ourselves and maintain our freedom of thought as individual free men and women. As Gabriel Marcel wrote, “Every kind of outward technical progress ought to be balanced in man by an effort at inner conquest, directed toward an ever greater self mastery. Unhappily, what we still have to ask is whether for an individual who every day takes more and more advantage of the facilities which technical progress has put at his disposal, such an effort at self mastery does not become more and more difficult.”